File Photos - From left, Kevin Kennerly, Shirley Lassiter, Charles Bannister
History of scandal
• June 28, 2010: Commission Chairman Charles Bannister is arrested and charged with driving under the influence. An investigation would later reveal the charge was unwarranted.
• Oct. 8, 2010: Bannister resigns to avoid prosecution of a perjury charge levied by a special grand jury investigating suspicious land deals.
• Oct. 20, 2010: Commissioner Kevin Kenerly is indicted by the same grand jury, and charged with bribery for allegedly taking $1 million from a developer in a deal for land near Rabbit Hill Park.
• Nov. 16, 2010: Kenerly resigns, calling the accusations against him a “distraction.”
• July 7, 2011: The Georgia Court of Appeals overturns the indictment against Kenerly, ruling the grand jury was not authorized to bring criminal charges. Another grand jury re-indicted him less than a month later.
• April 30, 2012: Bannister files a wrongful arrest lawsuit against Sheriff Butch Conway.
• May 14, 2012: Kenerly files a motion to quash the second indictment against him.
• May 31, 2012: Commissioner Shirley Lasseter abruptly resigns and pleads guilty to federal charges of bribery, admitting to accepting $36,500 for her vote on a proposed pawn shop in Duluth.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- The quote from U.S. Attorney Sally Yates -- issued in a Thursday news release from the Department of Justice -- lacked the "insert offense here," form letter feel of so many other prepared statements to come from her office.
It did not point to the feds' good work "stopping tax crimes in Georgia" or "preventing drug trafficking in the Southeast." It was not that generic.
"Today's guilty pleas," the statement said, "are part of an on-going effort to root out public corruption in Gwinnett County."
In less than two years, Gwinnett County's top governmental body has seen a chairman step down to avoid a perjury charge from a special grand jury investigating shady land deals; a commissioner still battling bribery indictments from that same investigation; and, on Thursday, another commissioner admit in federal court to teaming up with her son to sell her vote on a proposed pawn shop development.
All that is enough to validate District Attorney Danny Porter's recent depiction of the county's government: a "culture of corruption."
It was Porter himself who approached the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office two years ago requesting assistance probing that culture. Even after Thursday's guilty plea (and resignation) from Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, the investigation continues.
"As a prosecutor, and as a citizen of Gwinnett County, I'm shocked by this behavior," Porter said during a Thursday press conference, adding later: "I think people need to be more careful who they elect."
Recapping the controversy
These are three of the people that have been elected in Gwinnett, and what they've been accused of in the last 24 months:
-- Commission Chairman Charles Bannister. When Bannister was arrested in June 2010 on DUI charges that were eventually dropped, it was a black eye. The subsequent lawsuit against Sheriff Butch Conway is another.
But all of that was overshadowed when Bannister retired on Oct. 8, 2010, ending a three-decade political career. It would later surface that he agreed to resign in order to avoid a perjury charge from a grand jury that was investigating questionable land deals.
Bannister even pointed fingers in a recent document demanding a jury trial for his errant DUI arrest.
"Shortly after Bannister took office as Commission Chairman, (prominent local developer Wayne) Mason approached him and made it clear, explicitly, that if Bannister would use his position as Commission Chairman to Mason's advantage, Bannister would be made wealthy," his complaint alleged.
-- Commissioner Kevin Kenerly. That same grand jury indicted Kenerly on bribery charges, alleging he took $1 million from a developer to enable a favorable transaction when the county purchased land for an expansion to Rabbit Hill Park. He's also been charged with failing to disclose a financial interest in two zoning cases dealing with the same developer.
The initial indictment was thrown out, and Kenerly is still challenging the second one returned against him.
-- Commissioner Shirley Lasseter. Lasseter, who filled Bannister's role on an interim basis after he resigned, is the latest commission member to fall. On Thursday she pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $36,500 in bribes for her vote on a proposed pawn shop on Boggs Road in Duluth. She reportedly told undercover agents she would also be willing to sell her vote on the privatization of the Briscoe Field Airport.
An undercover agent told Lasseter and her son -- John Fanning, who sat on Gwinnett's zoning appeals board -- that he was involved with drug trafficking and money laundering. They complied anyway.
Building a reputation?
Lasseter's demise came, at least to the public, out of nowhere, and more than 18 months after that of Bannister and Kenerly. The Board of Commissioners had finally begun to put its issues behind it.
"Just as I felt we had made some progress and begun to point the county in the right direction, we are faced with this serious setback," current Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said earlier this week. "I am just sick for all of Gwinnett County."
Jeff Rader, a DeKalb County commissioner, was measured but honest when asked about Gwinnett's reputation in other government circles. He praised the county's administration, but stopped short of doing the same for elected officials.
"Over the past decade, I think that many people would say that perhaps elected leadership (in Gwinnett) has slipped some," Rader said.
Though far from sympathetic, he offered his own explanation of the Gwinnett County government's recent string of corruption. He called the "informal decision making" that is frequent in local government a gateway to possible corruption.
"Members of the commission can become isolated and can start trying to give themselves more discretionary authority than they're really accountable for," Rader said. "Once they start doing that, they become vulnerable to making decisions that are not in the public interest and may be specifically made on an (illegal) basis."
Daniel Yearwood Jr., chairman of the nearby Barrow County Commission, called the situation, simply, "very unfortunate."
Indications are that the feds won't be closing their investigation into Gwinnett County's government. Porter, the district attorney, and Yates, the U.S. attorney, both hinted as much during a press conference Thursday.
Lasseter's position will have to be filled through a special election, and District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau will run to keep his seat. The seats of commissioners John Heard and Lynette Howard are not up for voting this fall. Nash is running unopposed.
Debbie Dooley, a Dacula resident and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said Gwinnett's governing body has a long road ahead of it.
"I think voters have a distrust in the BOC with all the recent developments," she said. "Charlotte Nash is taking the right steps to restore that trust, but it will take time."